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Posted on Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Balance, Vertigo, and Hearing Health

Equilibrium or the center of balance is located within the inner ear. Issues within the ear, as in excess fluid, can cause problems with balance and result in vertigo. Balance, vertigo, and unexpected falls have been tied to hearing loss, even mild hearing loss. So what are the different ways that hearing and balance interact?

Balance is a complicated process involving different parts of the ear working in conjunction. The three main divisions of the ear, -outer, middle, and inner, work with the brain to decipher signals and determine the position of the head. Still, one of the most crucial roles in balance is played within the inner ear's vestibular system. The vestibular systems uses the fluid within the inner ear to keep track of the movements of the head and report them to the brain. So when there is a problem with fluid in the ears, like with Meniere's disease, balance can be affected as well as hearing. Below is a video that explains how hearing and balance are connected.

After watching this video, it might seem obvious why people who have hearing loss are more likely to fall, but surprisingly falling has also been tied to hearing loss even when there are no problems with the vestibular system. So what might be the other reasons for this increased likelihood of falls?

"Another reason hearing loss might increase the risk of falls is cognitive load, in which the brain is overwhelmed with demands on its limited resources." Dr. Frank Lin of Johns Hopkins

Cognitive overload happens when a person with untreated hearing loss is mentally fatigued by the extra effort needed to concentrate and pay attention to speech in their everyday environment. “Gait and balance are things most people take for granted, but they are actually very cognitively demanding,” Lin says. “If hearing loss imposes a cognitive load, there may be fewer cognitive resources to help with maintaining balance and gait.” This inability to focus on balance and gait is not something that happens when an individual is physically fatigued, but mentally fatigued. The cognitive exhaustion or listening lethargy can happen relatively quickly if a person is in a demanding listening environment. Demanding listening environments include those with high background noise or poor acoustics. Hearing loss also creates issues with spatial reasoning, which can cause balance problems.

Lack of awareness of environment can cause misperceptions in spatial reasoning.

According to Healthy Hearing.com, "Sound arrives at one ear a split second before it reaches the other ear on the other side of your head. The split second sound delivery time enables the hearing centers of the brain to determine the location of source of the sound--a throwback to our prehistoric ancestors who needed to know the location of the dangers around them." Dr. Lin, an otologist and epidemiologist, says among the possible explanations for the link is that people who can’t hear well might not have good awareness of their overall environment, making tripping and falling more likely.

Untreated hearing loss costs millions each year, and falls add to these rising costs. Hearing aids have been shown to help with cognitive overload, increasing attention and brain functions. Today's hearing aids also incorporate spatial and locational technologies to give wearers the same organic awareness of environment as natural hearing, and also have the ability to eliminate background noise.

If you'd like to learn more, see your hearing health provider. If you need help finding a hearing health provider click HERE to be connected with the largest network of trusted hearing health professionals in the nation!

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